The Campaign Spot

If Last Night Surprised You, You Probably Followed the National Coverage

The margin in last night’s special House election was nine percentage points, more than a 12,000-vote margin. It wasn’t that close. And yet very little of the coverage suggested that was in the cards. Why?

For starters, if you followed the national coverage and mainstream-press narrative, you would be stunned at the results, believing that Colbert Busch was a great candidate, only enhanced by having a famous brother.

A few points from Politico’s coverage:

While the former governor barnstormed the district, Colbert Busch seemed to be in hiding. She rarely held public events — and when she did, she was sometimes in a hurry to leave.

The flaws of Colbert Busch were visible to anyone who cared to look. She flopped in her first national interview, back in late February, offering a barely coherent word salad on pretty basic issues like reducing the debt and entitlement reform. She refused to say whether she would vote for Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker of the House. She didn’t take questions at most of her events; Sanford was eager to do as many debates as possible and she agreed to only one.

It’s as if she didn’t really want to talk about much of anything during this campaign, believing that the media’s incantation “Appalachian Trail” would be enough to persuade the voters of the district that by default, she had to be the better choice, no matter what policies she preferred.

As Politico notes:

After months of relentless focus on his personal life — his upcoming marriage to his Argentine fiancée, the charges that he trespassed at his ex-wife’s house and more — the theatrics helped Sanford turn the race into a debate about issues.

A House race focusing on issues! What a concept!

What we see here is another refutation of what I’ve called a “beautiful little fairy tale that liberals tell themselves,” that the American public is broadly supportive of their worldview, and they only lose because Republicans manage to Jedi-Mind-Trick the electorate into caring about distractions, silliness, and those irrelevant “wedge issues.”

Joe Klein offered a good example of the fairy tale in his novel, Primary Colors:

“The point is — EAGLETON,” Libby said. “You remember, Jack? I must have known you — what, two days, then? We hear about the electroshock, and it’s weird: That’s the first time I actually considered the possibility that we might lose to that [bad word] Nixon. Before that, I was absolutely convinced we would win. I mean, who would ever vote for Tricky? No one I knew, ‘cept the idiots I escaped from back in Partridge, Texas. Can you imagine, Henry? We were so [badwording] YOUNG. And this one, this one” — she nodded over toward Stanton — “he takes me out, we go to this little open-air Cuban joint, and I’ve got my head in my hands. Life has ended . And THEY did it — the CIA. It had to be the CIA. I couldn’t believe that Tom Eagleton would really be a nutcase. They had to have dragged him off and drugged him and made him crazy. It couldn’t have been that McGovern was just a COMPLETE [BADWORDING] AMATEUR. No, they did dirty tricks. And I said to Jack, ‘We gotta get the capability.’ You remember Jack? ‘We gotta be able to do that, too.’ And you said, ‘No. Our job is to END all that. Our job is to make it clean. Because if it’s clean, we win — because our ideas are better.’ You remember that, Jack?”

The fairy tale is that Americans, deep down, really agree with liberals on all of these issues and would heartily embrace their agenda if only these side issues, scandals, and manufactured distractions would just get out of the way.

But the electorate doesn’t always think liberal ideas are better, and we may argue that they rarely do. Certainly they didn’t in this district, which is why Elizabeth Colbert Busch had to run from the word “Democrat,” and had to cite a childhood sighting of John F. Kennedy for the reason she’s in the party. Her issue-free campaign was noted in the local press, but the national press seemed blinded by the glamour of being associated with one of their favorite comedians.

It’s bad enough for the press to not know the district, but national Democrats don’t have that excuse. Today you’re hearing a lot of talk along the lines of, “Oh, everyone knew this was a really conservative district and that Sanford would probably win.” Well, you don’t spend more than $2 million ($1.2 million in donations to Colbert Busch, more than $929,000 on independent expenditures against Sanford) for a race you know you can’t win. Maybe this race really was unwinnable for Democrats, but that means that the DCCC and its allies have serious problems in assessing the terrain and determining which races ought to be prioritized.

Finally, Public Policy Polling painted an astonishingly different portrait of this race 15 days ago — even with the difficulty of polling in a special election, an 18-point swing in two weeks is pretty remarkable. Most likely, Colbert Busch never enjoyed a nine-point lead (Democratic representative Jim Clyburn said her internal polls never had her ahead by more than three) and the sample of two weeks ago just wasn’t a likely representation of which voters would show up on Election Day.

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